Advocating for Urbanism

There is a certain vogue gathering around urban issues. No -- not inner-city poverty, crime, or joblessness -- but, rather, those issues that might broadly be described as ones of "human geography." Where do people live, where do they work, and how should they travel between the two? How can resources, ranging from good schools to public transit to clean air, be more fairly allocated within regions?

Such questions have long been the provenance of a small group of left planning theorists such as James Howard Kunstler and Jane Jacobs. Their calls for denser, urban development were motivated as much by aesthetic concerns as by economic and environmental ones. And while it's certainly true that strip malls and parking lots are eyesores, and that old buildings are often prettier than new ones, critics weren't totally off the mark when they accused these thinkers of snobbishness; of a certain lack of compassion for the typical postwar middle-class family, lured by cheap real estate and good schools into a vastly expanding suburbia.

But with the global mortgage and climate crises making sprawl less and less sustainable, planning issues can no longer be consigned to the fringes of progressive politics. Barack Obama seems to realize this and promised during his campaign that if elected, he would establish a White House Office of Urban Policy. At a meeting of African American columnists last week, Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett confirmed such an office would exist but didn't give more details.

Considering the vast array of problems an urban policy czar could conceivably tackle, and the many departments and agencies already devoted to these issues (Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, the EPA), some observers, including the Prospect's own Ezra Klein, voiced skepticism toward the idea. "[I]t's fairly unclear what the office's charge will be, what its jurisdiction will look like, and what funding or regulatory authority (if any) it'll have," Klein wrote, warning that "turf wars can be ugly things."

Indeed. But what Washington needs is less a day-to-day manager of urban programs than an outspoken advocate on behalf of urbanism. In an October op-ed for The Washington Post, Alec MacGillis wrote that Obama would be the nation's first "metropolitan president," meaning not just a denizen of cities but an intellectual up-to-date on the latest thinking in urban planning: overcoming the cultural and political divisions between cities, suburbs, and exurbs, and committing to regional energy and transit strategies.

As a candidate, Obama's urban platform was a composite liberal and neoliberal wish list, including tax credits for new homeowners, job-training programs for people coming out of prison, and the creation of 20 "promise neighborhoods," where government and nonprofits would attempt to provide poor children with the nutritional, educational, and social benefits middle-class kids routinely receive at home. But there was also a hint that Obama was following the work of younger regional planning reformers, the voices of a new movement defined by urban farming, anti-car activism, and environmental justice (the idea that the poor should not be disproportionately burdened by the effects of environmental degradation). You can read about this movement's obsessions on Web sites such as Streetsblog and Greater Greater Washington. And on his campaign Web site, Obama, too, pledged to "build more livable and sustainable communities" with parks, bike paths, and public transit options.

The urban czar, whoever he or she may be, should understand the new fervor around urbanism, and should champion policies that address, in one fell swoop, multiple challenges facing metropolitan regions. One example is congestion pricing, which New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried and failed to enact in Manhattan earlier this year. An aggressive pricing system -- perhaps one more aggressive than Bloomberg's proposal -- would not only be a response to global warming but would also make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists, raise money for public transit, and cut down on inner-city air pollution, which is responsible for an epidemic of asthma among poor children. White House level coordination between the federal Department of Transportation and regions considering congestion pricing could allow the United States to finally match Europe in the drive to create sustainable cities.

Another project for the head of the urban policy office could be working with the Department of Education and local governments to encourage states to revisit school-funding formulas, which, due to their reliance on local property taxes, vastly disadvantage urban schools.

Most of all, the urban czar should be a face and voice in the media on behalf of the metropolitan, regional worldview -- a worldview based upon the common-good notion that we all, regardless of where and how we live, have the responsibility to look out for each other and the planet. So who is the right man or woman for the job? The most obvious choice, Mike Bloomberg, has been writing preachy articles telling the new president how to behave, and would likely be less interested in a unified urban-policy strategy than in pursuing his own aims and ambitious. Leave Bloomy in New York, where he'll win a third term and can continue to pursue a reform agenda.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has a surname that screams "corruption" -- not exactly the man we want representing the city of the 21st century. And Newark's Cory Booker, a whip-smart rising Democratic star, would be better served by racking up more concrete accomplishments and holding out for a Senate seat or the New Jersey governor's mansion.

Geoffrey Canada is the founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, the project upon which Obama's "promise neighborhoods" is based. But with his laser-like focus on inner-city kids, Canada may not have the firmest grasp of transit and planning issues. Similarly, Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg's hard-charging transportation commissioner and a former Federal Transit Authority executive, knows congestion pricing up and down, but has little experience working on issues such as schools and housing.

Still, many of these individuals would be powerful advocates for change. And in the end, the resume of the appointee matters less than his or her charisma and commitment to the issues. Cities and metropolitan regions desperately need a national spokesperson. It’s a welcome development that in a nation that fetishizes the Iowa caucuses, car culture, and corn subsidies, our president-elect is offering to provide one.

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